Decades of secrecy can shake up the status quo of any fictional family, but the long-hidden lies at the heart of Neil Kleid's just-released "The Big Kahn" hold few answers for the participants but big revelations for readers. Spinning the story of recently deceased Orthodox rabbi David Kahn, a man who in truth was neither a rabbi or even Jewish before serving a New Jersey synagogue for four decades, the NBM graphic novel with art by Nicolas Cinquegrani illuminates lesser known elements of the Orthodox lifestyle while building its story of heartbreak and betrayal.
"The story starts out at his funeral, and his family doesn't know [how he pulled off his deception] because he's the one who's been lying to them," Kleid told CBR of the book, which earned strong word of mouth buzz at San Diego's Comic-Con International. "His brother doesn't know - the guy who reveals this - because they haven't spoken in years. So really, the only one who knows can't give the answers on how he pulled it off. This is a guy who came from a place where he didn't know anything. He created the setup of a rabbi as a con, a trick. He forged enough documents and learned enough language. And this is all assumption because you don't know. The thing about the story is you don't know because he's dead."
In dealing with the emotional fallout of a con carried to the grave, Kleid explained that he's following a creative path set out for himself that works in tandem with adventure genre projects like the Image/Shadowline web comic "Action, Ohio" and his SLG Publishing series "Ursa Minors." "I think the thing to understand is that a lot of the stuff I've done lately has Judaic themes to it or is set within that world, whether it's 'Brownsville' with Jewish mobsters or 'The Big Kahn,' which is really more a family drama," Kleid said. "I was just telling this to someone the other day that nobody is really doing genre stories set within the Jewish community. You've got a lot of people who will touch on the Kabalistic aspects of Judaism -Â the Golem or even the Jewish mob like Judd Winick did with 'Caper' -Â but nobody is setting regular stories about romance and espionage in a Jewish world. I feel like I'm a storyteller, and I want to tell a Western or I want to tell a spy story or a story about heartbreak, why not set it within the world I know and expose people who don't know about it?"
Kleid continued, "One of my big peeves and the drum beat I'm on these days is that I find a lot of people who are writing prose books about 'Is Superman Jewish?' or 'Is Captain America Jewish?' There have been like five books within the past few years where someone spent the time and wrote a 150 or a 200-page book about whether Thor is Jewish or not. And I think, 'You're a good writer. I've read your work in other places. Why are you spending the time devoting yourself to that when you could spend it writing a fictional story or non-fictional story set in the Jewish world?' If you love Judaism, why not do something new rather than the same old? I want to be the guy that looks at the new and looks to take my community and my world and expose it to people who don't know about it."
Kleid promises that "The Big Kahn" delivers its look into the Orthodox culture with all the drama and character expected from a familial saga, with a cast of characters as varied, detailed and damaged as the characters at the core of famous fiction families from the Sopranos to the Thornbirds. "There's six factors that get affected by the revelation - the first four are his family, his wife and his three kids," Kleid said. "He's got a son named Avi who is basically his assistant rabbi who it affects the most because he's next in line to take over. And what his father does affects him and the community's view of him. David's wife feels the most betrayed because when you're close to somebody that long, it's just natural. His daughter Lea is basically the black sheep of the family - in the art world and I assume has got a tattoo somewhere, goes to clubs and is not into religion - it affects her because she realizes that if Judaism is something her father felt strongly enough about to lie to people for 40 years, maybe there's something to it. It turns her world around. The last person is the youngest son, Eli, who sort of inherits his father's legacy. I don't want to give too much away, but he inherits what his father's legacy was and tries to use it - as kids would -Â to make everything right. To turn everything back the way it was.
"The other factors that are affected are Roy Dobbs, which is 'David Kahn's' brother who he did grifts and cons with. It affects him because he learns about who his brother became and his secret life. He begins toying with it in the aftermath of what the family went through. Finally, there's the congregation - the people that he's been shepherding for 40 years who feel completely betrayed because here's a guy who, when he says something, they do it. He's supposed to be the voice of reason. He's supposed to be the voice of God. And when the voice of God is lying to you, you don't feel so good after."
Kleid and Cinquegrani collaborated on "The Big Kahn" over a number a years, a process that worked smoothly considering a sizable distance between the two. "Nico [Cinquegrani] moved to South America. He's from there originally. He comes here [to North America] a lot. You look at Will Eisner's studio system back in the day, where Will Eisner sat in the front, did the pencils and then handed it forward for somebody to ink or do the letters. These days, comics uses the same studio system, but it's all done via e-mail. We've been able to communicate very well."
As the pair's work coalesced, Kleid focused his work on unraveling truths of the Jewish faith through the story's arc, exposing the unfamiliar with the social and personal concerns that specifically affect an Orthodox lifestyle. "I think what's nice about the book for people who are not Jews and not in the community is that it explores something you've never seen," he said. "That's what I try to do with most of the books I do set in the Jewish world. With 'Brownsville,' everyone's familiar with 'The Godfather' but nobody's ever heard of the Jewish mafia or knows what they did or knows the fact that this guy wouldn't kill on the Sabbath. With 'The Big Kahn,' there's a world around you that you know about because people have friends who are Jews, but nobody knows when it gets down to it what's involved in living a Jewish lifestyle.
"With 'The Big Kahn,' there are aspects about this that people don't know about - what a mezuzah is, what the reason behind Sabbath is, what the star of David [is] all about -Â and within the story you get exposed to that a little bit. You get exposed to why somebody would lie about being a rabbi for 40 years. It's kind of a big deal. What does a family who grows up thinking, 'I'm an Orthodox Jew, and that's what my parents are' do when they find 20 years later as an adult that the things you were learning from your father is not real? That kind of changes your world view. Those are the stories I'm going to tell while also working on superhero stuff that are not in the Jewish world."
As for his ongoing expansion into the mainstream comics world, Neil Kleid recently saw his work appear in Dark Horse's revived "Creepy" anthology with a twisted 8-pager about fat camp, and while "Action, Ohio" continues its online run, he already has his next NBM project underway with "American Caeser," which he describes as a "corporate American version of Julius Caseser." Plus, IDW is working on "Pop! The Darlings of America" by Kleid and collaborators Dan Taylor and Chris Moreno. "It's about celebutants and mixes Hollywood and tabloid journalism and publicists," Kleid explained. "The high concept is, 'What if Brittany, Lindsay and Paris were involved in the Anna Nicole murder?' And it really focuses on their publicist, who once you read this book you'll decide is the most evil woman in America.
"And I do have another project I'm starting to work on that will probably be my most involved and important project next. I have a publisher for it. I'm waiting for them to announce it. It kind of steps up my game, and I'm really excited about it."
"The Big Kahn" is on sale now from NBM Publishing.